VANCOUVER — Blake Nill didn’t hesitate for a second.
When placekicker Garrin McDonnell booted his fifth field goal of the day, an 11-yarder with just 31 seconds to play to lift the underdog UBC to a most improbable 38-37 win over a Saskatchewan Huskies’ team ranked No. 3 in the nation, the grizzled Thunderbirds’ head coach just knew he had felt this way before.
“In 2007 in Calgary, we finished 4-4 but we got a signature win in Saskatchewan that year against a Huskies’ team that were Vanier Cup finalists the season before,” said Nill, whose young 2019 UBC team improved to 2-5.
“We won that game on a last-second field goal, really similar to today,” he continued, “and from that point on, the (Calgary Dinos) program turned itself around. I think today could be the signature moment in turning this program around.”
The late Yogi Berra called it ‘Deja vu, all over again’ and if that is to be the case, then great things are once again in store beginning next season for a UBC program which uncharacteristically lost five straight games to open the season but which has now won its last two.
And if anyone knows that feeling of re-birth, it’s Nill.
The season after that 2007 upset of Saskatchewan, he quite famously led Calgary to six straight Hardy Cup Canada West titles (2008-13), as well as three appearances in the Vanier Cup national final (2009, ’10, ’13).
And after that roll, of course, he led to UBC to the national title in 2015, and followed it with three subsequent seasons as a conference front runner.
On Saturday, however, no one in their most optimistic dreams could have foretold the manner in which a ‘Birds team seemingly hell-bent on self-implosion for the vast majority of this season could have mustered the composure to play with the kind of consistency they showed through all three phases from start to finish, rallying from 12 points down entering the fourth quarter.
FROM O’CONNOR TO OLIVARES
New chapters begin with new players, new leaders, and in the case of the UBC Thunderbirds, a new starting quarterback.
No one will deny that the ‘Birds stumbled trying to find their feet at the pivot position following Michael O’Connor’s departure to the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts after last season.
And while the generational talents of O’Connor added up to a national title in his freshman year, his recently-minted successor is starting to do a pretty fair job of carrying the torch, even though he wasn’t able to grab it until midway through the season.
On Saturday, former Chilliwack-G.W. Graham star Gabe Olivares, a 2017 UBC recruit who played for the B.C. Football Conference’s VI Raiders last season, then returned this season to enter a three-way race for the starting job with Tommy Yanchuk and Ryan Baker, looked every bit the program’s future at the position.
Now every bit a mature redshirt freshman, Olivares turned in his second straight solid week, going 27-of-40 for 375 yards and two touchdowns against one interception.
It was nothing super fancy.
Just trusting the protection as his offensive line expertly moved the pocket for him, allowing the stocky, 5-foot-10 Olivares to thrive in a medium-range passing attack designed by offensive coordinator Taylor Nill in which he sprayed the ball to five different receivers.
One of those receivers, second-year Hamilton native Jacob Patten, this season’s offensive breakout star, made 10 catches for 203 yards, including a highlight reel grab while falling backwards in the end zone.
“It’s actually pretty crazy, but my quarterback is my roommate,” laughed Patten in the post-game while reflecting on his acrobatic touchdown, one which came with 4:28 remaining and, sandwiched between two McDonnell field goals, was a part of the ‘Birds game-ending, game-winning 13-0 run.
“He decided to come back this year,” continued Patten of Olivares who has now passed for 738 yards over his past two games, “and it’s a great connection that we have. But now, I can’t wait to see what we can do next year.”
Afterwards, Nill spoke to an important moment he shared with his new starting quarterback as the team prepared for the Huskies.
“I took a walk with Gabe Olivares earlier this week,” the head coach began. “I said ‘If you approach the rest of your university career with urgency, work hard and take every play seriously, I’ll never be able to out-recruit you.’”
New talent will always be brought in as part of the cyclical nature of collegiate sports, but that moment was all about Nill telling Olivares that as long he continues to work and improve, that the would remain the calibre of player capable of lifting any U Sports program to its stated yearly goals.
“He’s always been a big competitor,” added Nill of Olivares, who in his senior 2016 season at G.W. Graham led the entire B.C. high school Double-A ranks with 1,338 yards passing and 16 touchdowns in eight games. “He has the arm strength that if he continues to work, he’ll be a good one. He’s (Laval quarterback) Benoit Groulx, and I got my butt kicked by Benoit two or three times. And he’s (ex-Regina quarterback) Noah Picton.
“And I’ll tell you what, I have coached three or four Hec Crighton (U Sports’ Most Outstanding Player) winners and a ton of MVPs, and none of them played games two and three of their careers the way that Olivares just did.”
A GAME TO HANG YOUR HELMET ON
Let all of that soak in, and then consider the team that UBC stunned on Saturday.
“You beat the top team in the conference and potentially in the country, and that is huge momentum for this team and this program,” said Tom Schnitzler, the senior whose final game at Thunderbird Stadium on Saturday was also one of his best as he wreaked havoc from the defensive tackle spot on Huskies’ quarterback Mason Nyhus.
Prior to the game, on an afternoon only enhanced by the fact that the program saluted Frank Smith, its all-time greatest coach, there was clearly a feeling that Blake Nill’s gut instincts concerning the future of the program were bang on.
The defence, under coordinator Pat Tracey, was dialling up the right packages at the right time, including the huge sack delivered on second-and-six for an eight yard loss in the midst of the game-ending rally by UBC second-year linebacker Daniel Kwamou.
That play resulted in an eight-yard loss, forced the Huskies to punt, and allowed Olivares to hit Patten on a 30-yard gainer which ultimately set the table for McDonnell’s game-winning field goal with 31 seconds left.
There was the play of freshman running back Charles Lemay who became RB-1 for a day following an injury to starter Sharique Khan, and promptly gave the team a reliable and hugely-important five-yards-per-carry on first down.
There was superstar linebacker Ben Hladik picking off Nyhus and scoring a 50-yard pick-six major to give UBC an early 10-0 lead.
And there was pure freshman tackle Sam Steele joining the front seven and playing with confidence.
“It was our first big team win and I couldn’t be happier,” Olivares said. “We just kept our heads down, focussed on our game plan and just stuck with it. That’s all we did. All game.”
Added Nill, whose team finishes 2019 this coming Saturday, in of all places, Calgary: “I have been saying all year that we need to play a full 60 minutes. All season we’ve been playing 49 minutes, 58 minutes. Today we played 60 minutes.”
And in the process, played a game which between now and the start of the 2020 season will be worth its weight in gold.
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